Decoding Jay-Z’s Decoded


Bad news first: Decoded, the new memoir cum annotated lyric sheet from the world’s most famous rapper, Jay-Z, has a chapter that begins, “I met Bono years ago, in the cigar room of a bar in London with Quincy Jones and Bobby Shriver.” There’s a footnote that reads: “Shout-out to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” The book contains not just Jay-Z’s thoughts on religion and the two American presidents he’s on a first-name basis with, but also sketch biographies of everyone from Che Guevara to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The latter, Jay observes in a reflective moment, died “in a loft not far from the one I live in now, a loft filled with his art.” These are the weird and self-indicting contradictions that come with having a 12-digit net worth and a career now totally unmoored from the Marcy project hallways in which the artist grew up.

The good news is that Jay-Z knows more about these contradictions than you could ever hope to. “People sometimes say that now I’m so far away from that life,” he writes about his early days in Brooklyn, “that I have no right to rap about it. But how distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?”

Good question. Unlike, say, compatriot Eminem and his constantly rehabbing progenitor, Marshall Mathers, there has always seemed to be a lot of harmony between Jay-Z and his real-life alter ego, Shawn Carter, the Marcy-born drug dealer who gave Jay-Z the nerves and the seed money to get his music-biz start. “I never had to reject Shawn Carter to become Jay-Z,” the rapper explains, but note the distinction—those two people are not the same. That this is a fact that matters is one of the central revelations of Decoded, which began life as an autobiography, penned with the smart critic Dream Hampton. The bio, once called The Black Book, was scrapped for its too-personal revelations about his father and Carter’s years as a career criminal—”It’s too much,” he told Rolling Stone.

What we get instead with Decoded (also written with Hampton) is the story of Jay-Z. This subtle but crucial difference—the swapping of Shawn Carter for the rapper he’d eventually become—explains pretty much everything about the book, from its bonanza of unnecessary illustrations of guys like Kurt Cobain to its often-tendentious explanations of what the words mean in 36 or so Jay-Z songs. It also explains why Decoded‘s most central revelations are about not Shawn Carter, who remains stubbornly distant, but about hip-hop itself, the genre that made Jay-Z rich and that he in turn helped make a fully global, world-beating industry.

“Rappers refer to themselves a lot,” Carter writes in Decoded. “What the rapper is doing is creating a character that, if you’re lucky, you find out about more and more from song to song.” It bears mentioning that a huge percentage of Jay-Z’s audience still doesn’t really know this—that they still expect to see, as Jay puts it, the rap equivalent of Matt Damon “assassinating rogue CIA agents between movies.” But as Decoded makes clear, what the rapper’s project actually is is a kind of self-novelization: person meeting persona in 16 measure bars. “The flow isn’t like time,” he writes about the craft. “It’s like life.”

Wed this revelation to a very real origin story and you have perhaps the most comprehensive account of the art ever written. In Decoded, Shawn Carter dates the birth of Jay-Z to the day he first heard himself rap on tape. Hearing his own voice played back, a young Carter realizes “that a recording captures you, but plays back a distortion—a different voice from the one you hear in your own head.” At this exact moment, creator and creation split, and from then on the book takes us through twin biographies. In one: the rise and fall of a hustler named Shawn Carter, who sold drugs out in Trenton, D.C., and Virginia, who stayed awake on the corner “by eating cookies and writing rhymes on the back of brown paper bags.” In the other: the birth of a guy named Jay-Z, who took time off work to go on the road with Big Daddy Kane, who recruited sidekick Memphis Bleek in a Marcy courtyard, who was mentored by Jaz-O and was nagged into full-time rapping by former Roc-A-Fella business partner Damon Dash.

The two storylines, Shawn and Jay, converge right around the early height of the rapper’s fame, when, right before heading to Trinidad’s carnival to shoot the comically excessive video for the single “Big Pimpin’,” Carter stabs producer Lance “Un” Rivera in a crowded club for bootlegging his presciently titled fourth record, Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter. “The contrast between the million-dollar extravagance of the ‘Big Pimpin’ ‘ video,” writes Carter, “and the potential of being behind bars for years behind a mindless assault wasn’t lost on me.” Thus real-life hard rock Shawn Carter takes three years of probation and retires, both from Decoded and most of the subsequent Jay-Z discography.

Tellingly, Rivera’s name is never actually mentioned in the book. (Carter calls him “the guy.”) Nor is that of Carter’s famous wife, Beyoncé. This is peculiar autobiography, but then again, it’s not really autobiography at all. There are some lovely stray images—”three new Lexuses gleaming in the sun” in the middle of the Marcy projects; the rapper at home feeding his fish (?!) when he first sees himself on TV—but those who want to know what Shawn Carter was doing in, say, 1992 will have to look elsewhere. And this is the point. As his author is careful to observe, Jay-Z is not a person but a “first-person literary creation,” a product with a vast and addicted clientele, to be sold like the work his progenitor used to stash in “baggy jeans and puffy coats” while shivering in the New Jersey winter. As for that guy, whose name was Shawn Carter—well, he got away a long time ago.

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